Memories I Should Have Had

Part 9

New York: The Little Bar at Sardi’s/The Blue Ribbon/Greenwich Village

17 September

I’m meeting Billy Rose at Sardi’s to talk about his plans for the Ziegfeld Theater and some kind of book for a new Aquacade. He thinks I can convince Esther Williams to leave MGM and rejoin his show.

On my way in, I run into David Opatoshu outside the Little Bar. I had dinner with him the night before. He’s been drinking. I’m shocked. I ask him what’s the matter. He tells me, “I’ve been up all night auditioning for goddamn Maurice Evans!”

I remember that last night we were having dinner with Joseph Schildkraut at The Blue Ribbon. Schildkraut is self-destructive; he sees George Jean Nathan and greets him in Yiddish.

I thought Nathan was going to put his cigarette out in Schildkraut’s hand. Fortunately, Erich Maria Remarque and Marlene Dietrich distract him by asking his advice about beer.

Schildkraut’s all charged up about The Diary of Anne Frank being dramatized. He’s convinced he’s got a lock on the part of the father and it’ll win him every award going. Opatoshu chimes in that there’s got to be a part in it for him. Who walks in, but Ruth Gordon, her husband, Garson Kanin, who’s set to direct it, and Lou Jacobi, a Canadian comic who’ll play Van Daan. Jacobi’s excited it’ll show off his acting range. They crowd in at our table. The waiter, a refugee from the Habsburg Court, rattles off a list of special dishes, including, incongruously, corned beef and cabbage. Jacobi interjects, “Do you know from lean?” Ruth Gordon roars at Jacobi’s grimace; the waiter retreats.

I notice Billy De Wolfe and Hermione Gingold toasting their success in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.

I want to help Opatoshu out. I go over to their table and whisper in De Wolfe’s ear, “Richard G. Wolff.” De Wolfe gasps in delight. Wolff was the manager of the Colonial Theater in Boston where De Wolfe had been an usher and used “Wolff” to create his own stage name. He was grateful to Wolff because one night a chorus boy twisted his ankle and when Billy insisted he could take his place, Wolff put him in the show. Wolff was also pals with my grandfather who got me tickets to see Walter Hampden in Cyrano de Bergerac and seated me next to Ruth Gordon. We’ve been friends ever since. Gordon was born in Wollaston, Massachusetts a few streets over from De Wolfe. So, I bring them together. This is my lever to ask Kanin to give Opatoshu a shot at The Diary of Anne Frank.

Kanin says, he’d love to cast Opatoshu, he’s known about him since his juvenile days at the ARTEF, the Yiddish Workers’ Theatre. But he says, “You’re too old for the boy and too young for Dussel, besides that’s Jack Gilford’s part.” Jacobi nudges Kanin, “So tell him about Maurice Evans, already!”

Kanin beams, “Evans is casting his new production of Macbeth — I’ll call him for you!” For some reason, he winks at Jacobi and goes to find a phone. Jacobi leans over and confides, “Evans wants me to play ‘The Porter’ — but a Shakespearean actuh I’m not.” He says to Gordon, “Does it hurt to be crazy?” She cackles. Kanin returns, hands Opatoshu a slip of paper and tells him, “Be there tonight at midnight.” Opatoshu is puzzled. Jacobi says, “So he’s a night owl! So go!” Kanin smiles knowingly at Jacobi, who stifles a laugh. Kanin picks up the check, and unbidden, Gingold sings “There are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden.” After the final chorus she calls out, “Bea Lillie — eat your heart out.” A standing ovation ensues.

Gordon insists that we go with them to the opening night party for Ondine. A chance to meet Audrey Hepburn. Opatoshu begs off. All I remember from the party is De Wolfe “accusing” Alfred Lunt of goosing him and Mel Ferrer threatening to punch me after I kiss Audrey Hepburn’s hand.

So now, Opatoshu is on the West 44th St. sidewalk recounting his audition: “It’s at this townhouse in the Village. I ring the bell and a servant opens the door. ‘Mr. Evans expects you. You may go up.’ I ascend three flights of stairs, and the floorboards creak. A double door opens and I hear a plummy voice, ‘Do come in.’ I enter a large room. A fireplace and candelabra are the only light. Evans is seated on some kind of throne on a platform with two Great Danes at his feet. He nods at me, ‘Mr. Opatoshu, come closer please. One must readily accept perlustration in our profession don’t you know.’ He looks me up and down murmuring and humming. He rings a little bell and this guy appears from nowhere. Evans says, ‘Ariel bring tights and a doublet.’ Ariel reappears and hands them to me. Evans smiles and says, ‘Put them on.’ Ariel glares at me. I figure it’s Shakespeare so….

The doublet barely reaches below my waist and Evans beckons me. ‘Hmmm, you certainly don’t need any padding. Would you care for some brandy?’ I wonder if he ‘s ever going to ask me to read for him. He coos, ‘Come and sit by me.’ He wants me at his feet. It’s awkward. Then he intones, ‘Always R-r-r-rember, “Maurice” rhymes with Boris. No doubt you know Tomashevsky?’ He tells me the story of how he came here from England and fell in love with America’s ‘do what you will’ spirit.’ I can feel a clock inside me ticking away the minutes of my life. Finally, he offers me the part of the Third Murderer. Two lousy lines! He promises more to come should I prove ‘worthy.’ I say, ‘thanks, but no thanks’!”

Kanin and Jacobi had set him up for a Shakespearean snipe hunt with Evans. I tell Opatoshu he’ll get more sympathy than grief. To prove it, I bring him in to meet Billy Rose, as soon as I tell him that Opatoshu is worn out from a Maurice Evans midnight audition Rose claps him on the back and tells him to go and see Abe Burrows for a part in Reclining Figure. It runs a year and a half. Plus, I take Billy’s advice and put money in the show!

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